Rendering of downtown San Mateo’s Essex development.
The developers of an eight-story apartment building proposed for downtown San Mateo were offered a litany of ideas to make their project better by the San Mateo Planning Commission this week — more parking, more retail, a better pedestrian experience and an architectural design to complement Central Park.
“Central Park is really a jewel, so the building that sits across from that park really needs to make a statement. It has to be something San Mateo is going to be proud of,” said Planning Commissioner Charlie Drechsler.
The Planning Commission met for a study session Tuesday night to review the pre-application for the proposed 75-foot Essex at Central Park that would cover the surface parking lot on the corner of Fifth Avenue and San Mateo Drive. While the need for housing was a consensus, there were concerns about the location and size of this proposal.
Voter-approved Measure P, an extension of Measure H, requires developments taller than 55 feet to provide an affordable housing component of 10 percent below-market rate units per development and a public benefit. Defining that public benefit is another challenge.
Whether it’s making financial contributions to Central Park, improving parts of Fifth Avenue or donating to a parking structure, Planning Commissioner Rick Bonilla said the public benefit will need to be significant.
“We are looking at a big change, what’s next to probably one of the most beloved parks on the Peninsula,” Bonilla said. “We need to see some kind of public benefit that’s lasting and sustaining and that’s going to do something positive for our park and do something positive for downtown.”
Planning Commission Chair Christopher Massey supports the concept of a residential development on the site, if done right.
“It would provide housing in an ideal location for housing. It fits into the city’s plans and projections for a more transit-oriented future,” Massey said. “I’m very skeptical of the 75 foot height … the issue of the additional 20 feet in height is within the discretion of the city. We’re going to be very focused on that issue as we go forward and we’re going to need studies to help us make that decision.”
Since submitting its pre-application several months ago, Essex has already begun to make revisions in response to feedback, John Eudy, executive vice president of development for Essex Property Trust, said Wednesday. However, it could only show the original design so as to remain consistent during the study sessions and community meetings. It will be able to introduce its new plans as the formal application process begins, Eudy said.
Now that the pre-application hearing process is complete, Eudy said Essex will begin to work with city staff and brainstorm how to address concerns before drafting a formal application. The final application will undergo multiple studies and be channeled back through the Parks and Recreation and Planning commissions before reaching the City Council.
“We’re just assembling data so we can respond accordingly to make sure we address the concerns everyone has. And obviously any time you’re developing anything, you are affecting the neighborhood and it’s our job to mitigate their concerns,” Eudy said.
The current proposal is to turn the 1.2-acre site into 117 one- and two-bedroom luxury apartments with market based rates expected to range from $2,000 to $3,000 per month and 3,500 square feet of retail space. Approximately half of the site would be turned into a 260-space parking lot, 95 of which would be publicly accessible, spread between three levels with one underground.
Based on the proposal’s rough draft, after replacing the public parking spaces, there would only be 165 spaces for residents and their visitors. Ideally, new residents would be amenable to public transportation, Massey said, but he doubts 260 parking spaces would be sufficient for a building of this size.
“Clearly the amount of parking that’s being provided here is thin. You’re talking about slightly more than one parking space per unit,” Massey said.
Some of the ideas from the commission included real-time parking signs to indicate available space, moving the proposed entrance from Fifth Avenue near El Camino Real to San Mateo Drive to relieve congestion, increasing the width of the sidewalk and creating safer street crossings — including a more inviting one from Fourth Avenue and improvements from the site to Central Park.
Neighbors of the project, including the Gramercy on the Park Homeowners Association, have already expressed concerns — specifically when it comes to parking, traffic and the impact on Central Park.
About a dozen members of the public spoke Tuesday and primarily acknowledged the need for more housing but questioned the appropriateness of the development’s proposed size and the potential increase in traffic and loss of parking.
The county is in need of housing for all income levels, said Rhovy Lyn Antonio, spokeswoman for the California Apartment Association.
But community members question if the 10 percent required by Measure P is enough and what the affordable units will actually cost. Bertha Sanchez, co-president of the Home Association of North Central San Mateo, worries the units won’t be reasonably priced
“We do have the need for more housing, that’s true. But I’m not sure if it’s going to be for a moderate income,” Sanchez said.
Essex will contribute 12 affordable housing units to the very low-income category, Eudy said.
He said he appreciates some of the public’s suggestions for satisfying Measure P requirements but, the City Council will make the ultimate determination, Eudy said, adding he would like a council study session on the public benefit aspect of the project.
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